How does the book Red Badge of Courage, other literature, and art contribute to an understanding of the Civil War and its importance in American history? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While The Red Badge of Courage has as its setting the Civil War, Crane's focus is more upon the psychological states of combat and an individual soldier's emotional experiences in the midst of battle. One powerful message that this novel does convey about the Civil War is in the impressionistic depictions of the futile suffering imposed on Americans by Americans in a war that should have been avoided. In addition, the realism of The Red Badge of Courage emanates from Crane's life experiences as a war correspondent; these accurate descriptions, too, underscore the futility of battle and the ironies of war. One such description is that of the loud soldier who declares that nothing will happen to him, but in the first battle, he is shot. As he lies dying, he tells Henry Fleming,

"It's my first and last battle, old boy"....Something tells me---I'm a gone coon this first time and ---I w'want you to take these here things--to--my folks."
...and raised his limp hand in a prophetic manner and turned away. 

Certainly, the tragedy of civil strife is depicted in other literary works such as Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a story in which a Northern soldier betrays a Southerner by pretending to be a confederate soldier. He misinforms the Southern planter by telling him the bridge is not well protected and a brave man could easily burn this bridge, preventing the troops from crossing. Later, after the Southerner tries to be a hero by sneaking to the bridge, he is hanged by the Northern army.

Like Crane, the poet Walt Whitman, a sensitive man on his own, describes disturbing scenes of human suffering in a poignant poem, "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim." In this poem the speaker witnesses three dead soldiers on stretchers who are covered with blankets. When he lifts the blankets to view the faces of the dead soldiers, he asks, "Who are you my dear comrade?" and "Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?" The third the speaker thinks he knows, "this face is the face of the Christ himself." Here the implication is that these young men are the sacrificial victims of war.
Another of Whitman's poems, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is an elegy written on Lincoln's untimely death. In this poem, Whitman takes the grief over the death of a president in the wake of a horrific war which cost the lives of nearly 650,000 Americans and extends it to universal significance.

Drawings and paintings depicting the war and the final surrender also convey the character of the men who commanded. "The Surrender of General Lee" is a depiction of the signing of documents At Appomattox Court House. There it is "so great a warrior"--as described by a Union soldier--who signs the papers as General Grant stands sideways, not looking at Lee. 

A less than favorable depiction of the North is portrayed in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. The epic movie based upon her novel depicts the devastation of Atlanta and massacre of the Southerners in the panoramic scene depicting part of Sherman's incendiary and brutal march to the sea with the burning of Atlanta. In the aftermath of the war, once wealthy landowners were reduced to poverty by the worthlessness of Confederate money, and they could not pay the taxes on their property, their land was confiscated and broken up into small farms on which sharecroppers worked.

Literary works and artistic works did much to record the inhumanity of man to man and the tragic cruelties of war; however, through the use artistic license authors sometimes have provided misinformation; for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's incendiary novel Uncle Tom's Cabin which depicted heinous acts of cruelty by the sinister Simon Legree were purportedly based upon fact. But, after the war, Ms. Stowe admitted that she had fabricated the scenes of Legree's sadistic behavior. Unfortunately, this work was so influential in arousing feelings that when Stowe was introduced to President Abraham Lincoln, he allegedly greeted her by remarking, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!"